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Coronavirus and climate: Five scientists share their views

Climate news - News and opinions about climate science

Published 31.03.2020

Over the past few weeks, there has been a decline in air pollution and a change in people’s habits and communication forms following the introduction of strict measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus. We have asked five CICERO scientists – each with different academic backgrounds – three questions about Covid-19’s impact on the climate.

  • How have the various, strict measures introduced over past few weeks to curb the spread of coronavirus contributed to changing our habits?
  • What will the impact of these measures be on CO2 emissions and air pollutants, both short-term and long-term?
  • What can we learn from how we handle such crises?

(all five scientists have not answered all three questions)

 

Tom-Erik Julsrud, sociologist and senior researcher:

"If the current situation continues, I believe it will affect people’s habits and routines because it is making us do things in new ways. Many habits are linked, so that one habit can affect another. For example, if you stop commuting to work every day, you may organise childcare and food purchases differently too. And that may lead to some lifestyle changes. Over the long term, the corona pandemic may lead to many people adopting a more local lifestyle, with less travelling, and this could have a positive impact on the environment.

When it comes to how we Norwegians relate to the current societal changes, I believe and hope that this will give us a better understanding of the connection between global events and one’s own behaviour. When it comes to climate change, many people don’t see these connections, and are underestimating the importance of local activities. We can learn a lot from seeing that major global crises have local effects, but also from the fact that they can be met with collective coordination and efforts. Over the past few weeks, we have seen that society really is capable of mobilising when a global crisis occurs. Both politicians and institutions are now seeing that we are capable of making changes when it is important to do so. This could have a positive effect in terms of the adjustments we will need to make to reach our climate targets."

 

Jan Ivar Korsbakken, physicist and senior researcher focusing on climate economics and drivers of climate change:

"The immediate measures introduced to stop the spread of coronavirus will, in the short term, lead to significantly lower emissions, but these (hopefully) temporary reductions will have little impact on the climate. What is most important, is what the total emissions are over time. If we experience a protracted and deep economic downturn, this could lead to a long-lasting reduction in emissions, even if this is a very unattractive way to cut emissions. But we could also end up seeing higher emissions. That could happen if, for example, the economic crisis leads to climate action being given less priority, or if the Chinese government increases investments in heavy industry and infrastructure development in order to kick-start the economy. On the other hand, we could see a more positive development if governments in many countries prioritise supporting activities that can help push society in a more climate-friendly direction.

The coronavirus crisis may teach us more about how economic crises affect greenhouse gas emissions. We will hopefully also learn more about how to think long-term in the middle of a crisis. If the crisis leads to major and long-lasting changes in the economy, it will be of vital importance that politicians and other decision-makers also have the climate in mind when designing measures for getting the economy back on track."

 

Kristin Aunan, natural scientist and senior researcher focusing on air pollution, health and climate:

"In both China and the northern part of Italy, there has been a sharp reduction in air pollution as a result of the drastic measures that have been introduced to curb the spread of coronavirus. From early February until early March, air pollution in China fell by 20-30 percent. If this figure had remained stable until year-end, 50,000-100,000 lives could have been saved, according to our calculations. It now looks as if the wheels have started turning again in China, and emissions are expected to rise again as a result. However, we can still assume that the temporary reduction in air pollution has saved human lives, and that other parts of the world will see a similar decline in air pollution levels. If people become aware of the health consequences of these short-term changes, I think they could become more engaged in measures that can improve air quality where they live.

Many scientists are now wondering whether people living in areas with high air pollution are more prone to developing serious illness if they get infected with Covid-19. A recent study from China showed that smokers have a 14 times higher risk of developing severe pneumonia as a result of a Covid-19 infection than non-smokers. Moreover, an article from 2003 which is frequently referred to these days, indicated that the mortality rate among SARS patients was higher among those who had been exposed to high levels of air pollution. The biological explanation could be that these patients already had reduced lung function and that their airways were therefore more sensitive to the SARS virus (SARS was also caused by coronavirus, but not by the same type as Covid-19).

The corona crisis is a reminder that the world is capable of action when needed. We are acting to support measures that are needed to protect the weakest among us. It would be good if we could take some of this motivation with us when working to improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

 

Borgar Aamaas, meteorologist and senior researcher focusing on climate and emissions:

"Economic crises, wars and epidemics rapidly cut emissions for a limited period of time, but I wouldn’t recommend these as ways to solve the climate challenges. The measures introduced to stop the spread of coronavirus will probably only lead to a short-term reduction in emissions, similar to what we've seen happening in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis and other crises. During the quarantine period in China, CO2 emissions fell by about 25 percent. Now, we are seeing a sharp drop in air travel and other long-distance activities globally. When the world economy starts picking up again, we will typically see a return to business as usual. After the global financial crisis, we saw that a return to economic growth and higher economic activity led to a sharp increase in emissions. I can imagine that something similar may happen this time too. But maybe the crisis will teach us something, such as that some meetings which we today do in person and travel to, can be held online.

I have previously argued that the ambitious climate goals of the Paris Agreement can be reached if all countries do as much as they would do if they spent several years preparing for war. Now, I will perhaps soon be able to say that if all countries do as much as they are currently doing to stop the Covid-19 pandemic, then we will make it. In order to solve the climate problem, you must be willing to act."

 

Jennifer Joy West, human geographer and senior researcher:

"We see that the corona crisis is bringing out both creativity and solidarity in people, and we are learning a lot about what we are willing to sacrifice and what we can do without. I think we should use this time to reflect on what the concept of welfare really means, and which values are important to us. Many people are realising that they do not need to travel so much and that there are other ways to stay in touch.

The corona crisis is showing us how closely intertwined public health, environmental health and the economy are, and how mutually dependent we are on each other. Although this situation is awful for many, there are bright spots such as the realisation about how quickly we are able to make changes in a positive direction when it really matters, and that the decisions and limitations that are introduced can have positive side effects – not least when it comes to combating climate change.

When it comes to lessons learned from today’s situation, we see that we as individuals and as a society have a tremendous capacity to transform, and to change when needed, and that political decisions are made and acted upon where necessary. I hope we can take this with us into the future. Dealing with this crisis and future crises in society requires that we address the common underlying causes of the problems facing nature and society and move in the same direction."